TLDR;

We expect the internet to “just work” like magic because we don’t understand what goes on beneeath the curtains. It looks and feels like a whole complete unit but it’s actually a set of disjointed pieces hodgepodged together. The biggest issue is that it feels put-together, official, permanent, but because it’s actually controlled by all these different operators from the shadows, there is no guarantee for things being the way they are. ^98093c

Author:: Jonathan Zittrain Full Title:: The Internet Is Rotting Tags:#media/articleFavorites internet Link:: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/06/the-internet-is-a-collective-hallucination/619320/

highlights from 2021-08-01

  • Sixty years ago the futurist Arthur C. Clarke observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The internet—how we both communicate with one another and together preserve the intellectual products of human civilization—fits Clarke’s observation well. In Steve Jobs’s words, “it just works,” as readily as clicking, tapping, or speaking. And every bit as much aligned with the vicissitudes of magic, when the internet doesn’t work, the reasons are typically so arcane that explanations for it are about as useful as trying to pick apart a failed spell. ^Dq5pqZCrR
  • The internet’s distinct architecture arose from a distinct constraint and a distinct freedom: First, its academically minded designers didn’t have or expect to raise massive amounts of capital to build the network; and second, they didn’t want or expect to make money from their invention.
  • So the internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks. Tim Berners-Lee took up the invite and invented the protocols for the World Wide Web, an application to run on the internet. If your computer spoke “web” by running a browser, then it could speak with servers that also spoke web, naturally enough known as websites. Pages on sites could contain links to all sorts of things that would, by definition, be but a click away, and might in practice be found at servers anywhere else in the world, hosted by people or organizations not only not affiliated with the linking webpage, but entirely unaware of its existence. ^mb3Ne72RA
  • The web, like the internet, is a collective hallucination, a set of independent efforts united by common technological protocols to appear as a seamless, magical whole. ^jNDlVW-Og
  • These buildings didn’t run themselves, and they weren’t mere warehouses. They were staffed with clergy and then librarians, who fostered a culture of preservation and its many elaborate practices, so precious documents would be both safeguarded and made accessible at scale—certainly physically, and, as important, through careful indexing, so an inquiring mind could be paired with whatever a library had that might slake that thirst. (As Jorge Luis Borges pointed out, a library without an index becomes paradoxically less informative as it grows.)
  • The first study, with Kendra Albert and Larry Lessig, focused on documents meant to endure indefinitely: links within scholarly papers, as found in the Harvard Law Review, and judicial opinions of the Supreme Court. We found that 50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked. ^YUSfP—hv
  • Libraries exist, and they still have books in them, but they aren’t stewarding a huge percentage of the information that people are linking to, including within formal, legal documents. No one is. The flexibility of the web—the very feature that makes it work, that had it eclipse CompuServe and other centrally organized networks—diffuses responsibility for this core societal function.
  • Of course, there’s a keenly related problem of permanency for much of what’s online. People communicate in ways that feel ephemeral and let their guard down commensurately, only to find that a Facebook comment can stick around forever. The upshot is the worst of both worlds: Some information sticks around when it shouldn’t, while other information vanishes when it should remain. ^UEgVSoNGM
  • But there’s a catch: These officially sanctioned digital manifestations of material have an asterisk next to their permanence. Whether it’s an individual or a library acquiring them, the purchaser is typically buying mere access to the material for a certain period of time, without the ability to transfer the work into the purchaser’s own chosen container. This is true of many commercially published scholarly journals, for which “subscription” no longer signifies a regular delivery of paper volumes that, if canceled, simply means no more are forthcoming. Instead, subscription is for ongoing access to the entire corpus of journals hosted by the publishers themselves. If the subscription arrangement is severed, the entire oeuvre becomes inaccessible.
  • Libraries in these scenarios are no longer custodians for the ages of anything, whether tangible or intangible, but rather poolers of funding to pay for fleeting access to knowledge elsewhere.
  • Rereading an old Kindle favorite might then become reading a slightly (if momentously) tweaked version of that old book, with only a nagging feeling that it isn’t quite how one remembers it.
  • The rise of the Kindle points out that even the concept of a link—a “uniform resource locator,” or URL—is under great stress. Since Kindle books don’t live on the World Wide Web, there’s no URL pointing to a particular page or passage of them. The same goes for content within any number of mobile apps, leaving people to trade screenshots—or, as The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany put it, “the gremlins of the internet”—as a way of conveying content.
  • Tools that could have made humanity’s knowledge production available to all instead have, for completely understandable reasons, militated toward an ever-changing “now,” where there’s no easy way to cite many sources for posterity, and those that are citable are all too mutable. ^Xwy2meklv
  • By making the storage and organization of information everyone’s responsibility and no one’s, the internet and web could grow, unprecedentedly expanding access, while making any and all of it fragile rather than robust in many instances in which we depend on it.
  • Amberlink can run on some web servers to make it so that what’s at the end of a link can be captured when a webpage on an Amberlink-empowered server first includes that link. Then, when someone clicks on a link on an Amber-tuned site, there’s an opportunity to see what the site had captured at that link, should the original destination no longer be available.
  • We can build what the Germans used to call a giftschrank, a “poison cabinet” containing dangerous works that nonetheless should be preserved and accessible in certain circumstances